When the symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease are at their worst, Michael J. Fox can’t write. Or speak. Or stay still. With medication, these effects can be masked for short periods. It’s during these times that he wrote Lucky Man: A Memoir, the proceeds of which will go to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Sounds like a depressing read, right?
Not so. Through it all, Fox maintains his sly sense of humor. He acknowledges the title’s inherent irony, explaining that the degenerative neurological condition has been a priority-setting gift to him, albeit a ”gift that just keeps on taking.” He recalls worrying that his fans would find him less amusing if he disclosed his illness (”Can you laugh at a sick person without feeling like an a–hole?”) and shares darkly jocular anecdotes about battling to control his quivering limbs in public settings (”Having Parkinson’s at an auction can be an expensive proposition”).
Of course, the book doesn’t deal exclusively with Fox’s disease. He spends much space, too much in fact, recounting his not-that-fascinating Canadian childhood; an undersize child with big-star dreams, he felt torn between his military-man dad’s ”battle-tested pragmatism” and his psychic grandma’s ”idealistic belief in destiny.” After achieving a modicum of fame as costar of the Canadian sitcom ”Leo & Me,” he dropped out of high school and headed for Hollywood.
Fox’s subsequent ride on the celebrity roller coaster provides an assortment of entertaining bits. He gets a callback for ”Ordinary People,” but director Robert Redford ”seemed less than impressed by my reading; he spent the audition flossing his teeth.” After Matthew Broderick turns it down (and over the initial objections of creator Gary David Goldberg and NBC honcho Brandon Tartikoff), Fox wins the role of teenage neoconservative Alex P. Keaton on ”Family Ties.” ”Lucky Man” notably omits many details about his seven years on the hit sitcom. Fox confirms his character wasn’t supposed to be the show’s focus but doesn’t report the reaction of his costars Meredith Baxter-Birney and Michael Gross to being overshadowed by their TV son. He later admits to falling out with Goldberg after they reunited on ABC’s ”Spin City” but doesn’t expound on their euphemistic ”creative conflicts.”
Fox is more forthcoming with memories of his movie career. In one painfully funny passage, he’s prevented by royal etiquette from making a much-needed visit to the men’s room while seated next to Princess Diana at ”Back to the Future”’s London premiere (”’Excuse me, Your Highness, I have to go wring it’ was not going to be the appropriate response”). He speculates on the motivation behind Cher’s chilly reaction to meeting him backstage at the 1986 Oscars: ”Maybe it had something to do with my being roughly the same height as Sonny.” Fox also candidly documents such incidents of on-location debauchery as downing cocktails of whiskey and cobra blood while shooting Brian De Palma’s Vietnam pic ”Casualties of War” in Thailand.
Without naming names, Fox confesses to alley-catting around in the ’80s (”As for the question, ‘Does it bother you that maybe she just wants to sleep with you because you’re a celebrity?’ My answer to that one was, ‘Ah?nope”’). In fact, the star doesn’t flinch from depicting himself as a spoiled, self-absorbed celebrity in the not too distant past: ”I had agents, money managers, personal assistants to handle most of the practical matters of life — I was far too busy (playing make-believe for a living) to do much of anything for myself.” Yet with the aid of his wife (and former ”Ties” love interest) Tracy Pollan, a support group, and a Jungian shrink, Fox says he’s been able to clean up his act.
At times, therapyspeak threatens to overtake ”Lucky Man” (”My self-isolating behavior did nothing to invite disclosure”). But Fox, who penned the book alone, has a savvy, smart-alecky voice of his own. ”I was the big news story over that holiday weekend,” he writes of the Thanksgiving ’98 revelation of his illness. ”My story, as we say in showbiz, had legs.”
Soon after, ”20/20” aired Barbara Walters’ interview with Fox. He recalls his strategy for the announcement: ”I had one goal in mind: to give an honest account of how, over the last 7 years, I had integrated the disease into a rich and productive life. It was important for me to convey my optimism, gratitude, perspective, and even an ability to laugh about certain aspects of life with P.D.” Which, in the end, is a perfectly apt description of what ”Lucky Man” achieves.